Thursday, May 31, 2012

Raising the bar: Ongoing peer review in the online writing course

A few years ago, I wrote some thoughts in this space about facilitating peer review in online writing courses and some particular advantages I see in conducting reviews in electronic environments. But, thinking about now, we can go further: When you use simple asynchronous writing tools in your course, peer review becomes intrinsic to your course, because the entire experience is a peer review.

Of course, asynchronous tools like message boards enable/provide for a variety of student writing practices and behaviors. Students can easily see each others' written work and react and respond to it -- in writing. These technologies enable multiple audiences, more specifically, audiences that are not exclusively the instructor (evaluator). The course texts become part of an ongoing, audience-driven exchange and review.

An interesting (although perhaps inevitable and even obvious) aspect of having students read and respond to each others' work so extensively is that the writing norms of a course change. Because student writing and thinking efforts are "published," students are outside the isolation that can mark school writing experiences, with a number of outcomes that I think help their development as writers.

In my courses that make heavy use of message boards, whether onsite, online, or hybrid, I regularly see how students take tentative, sometimes stilted, writing steps early in the term, and then -- wham! -- a week or two into a course almost all of them are writing at a much higher level (both conceptually and mechanically). The class members, as a group, gel and constructively push one another to a higher quality and level of writing.

In a class I taught recently, I evaluated students' message board work on a weekly basis. They wrote short essays responding to course readings and subsequent reactions to those essays; each week was worth 3% of the overall course grade. Individually, very minor. This was a bright, talented group of students, yet in conferences many of them revealed to me how intimidated they were by the course. Why? The small weekly grades (part of a low-stakes grading philosophy I embrace) couldn't be causing the pressure. After thinking about it, I realized the pressure certainly wasn't from me or the course evaluation scheme; instead I believe it was the kind of writing culture that emerged because of the "public" nature of the texts in the course, which had established a high collective bar for these talented writers. Every week, several writers broke new ground in terms of risk, structure, genre, style. They were almost productively calling one another out.

Certainly, you could have students exchange hard-copy papers to achieve similar effects, but digital technologies make this kind of open writing space easy to create. You don't have to be a technophile to see the advantages of placing students in situations in which they can write to each other using thousands of low-stakes words that help them practice writing, and, in many cases, find their voices. (I might mention that this type of one-to-many electronic writing is also much closer to the kind of writing many of them will do professionally as well.) These technologies can help you take a philosophy that embraces peer review and turn it into a pervasive, everyday course practice.